By Rebecca Hertz
Traveling to Ringling had been on my mind for a while, but there was always and excuse not to go. Work, family, just being tired were the excuses I made. But on this particular Saturday morning, the impulse was overwhelming. I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed out before I could change my mind. It wasn’t that far, it would only take a few hours out of my day and just maybe I would be able to find that elusive sense of closure to a past I couldn’t reconcile. Maybe if I made the trip, I would find some positive reflection of a man who I had been told had no good in him, and by relation meant there was no good in me.
Confined in the landscape, trapped in time, sit the decaying clapboard buildings spotted with the faded and peeling paint and empty storefronts. Plate glass windows have lost their transparency from the sandblasting of dust storms. Amidst the worn and crumbling remnants of a once thriving if not prosperous town hidden in oil and cattle country of Oklahoma sits Ringling, covering .77 miles with a population of 1050. Today the pump jacks sit motionless like steel skeletons scattered across the prairie. The cattle that edge the barbed wire lining the blacktop highway have woeful expressions and bones that protrude from molting hides as they lose their winter fullness in preparation for the stifling heat to come. Rusted tractors and farm equipment seem to be the most plentiful commodity in sight, but no one’s buying.
The only prosperity that remains is visible in the local convenience store, which sits at the edge of town on the highway that provides its sustenance. I encounter local residents with emotionless faces and tired and hopeless postures as they purchase single cans of beer or two, lone, off-brand cigarettes for a dollar.
Ringling rests between Healdton and Waurika, west of Ardmore on Highway 70, named for John Ringling, one of the Ringling brothers who helped form the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Any affluence that fame brought to the tiny Jefferson County town has long since been erased from its decaying façade.
I traveled to Ringling optimistic that I would uncover redeeming, something left out of the stories and recollections of relatives. In the end only the lowest expectations were realized, and the wave of sorrow I anticipated doesn’t appear. Instead I am left with the flat gray dullness of the cynic and a surprising twinge of anger seething at the edge of my consciousness.
The circus is a fitting theme as I struggle to make sense of the players and events that have led me here – characters created in a child’s mind. In the center of the cast is the ringmaster - R. P. Burleson. He left in his wake enough discarded wives and offspring to staff a small carnival, if not an entire circus. It was his show, with his rules as the collateral characters balanced precariously on the high wire far above the ring. But the show comes to an end in this tired little town where R. P. lived on and off throughout his life. Why he continually returned here is still a mystery. Perhaps for love, perhaps to escape his crimes in the comfort of a friend, maybe it was just familiar.
This is yet another leg in a journey to discover who I am, where I come from and to satisfy a yearning that has always been a part of me. It began with a 9-month-old child in a dirty yellow dress sitting in a parking lot oblivious to the transaction that would transpire. A child to be sold - disposed of in the most profitable manner. A small sum changing hands absolves parental responsibility and changes a small life forever.
This journey has lasted over fifty years and Ringling represents the last leg of the quest to find the missing piece of the puzzle. R.P. Burleson - conman, convicted criminal, opportunist and my father in the most generic sense of the word. He lived and died in poverty leaving behind at least 15 children across Texas and Oklahoma, and possibly farther. From photographs and conversations with those who knew him, I know he was an attractive, charming alcoholic and bigamist – tall, thin and tan. He married often without particular concern for divorcing previous wives, and didn’t stay around long after the babies came along. Some were kept by their mothers, some given away and others sold. Yet the wives who are still living gaze off in dreamy memories as they recount a fond remembrance.
“Ah, R.P.,” said Dorothy Robbins, one of his wives in the early 1950s, now living in Healdton. She places her hand to her chest and looks off into the distance. First she describes him as the selfish man who got rid of their children while she was in a hospital and powerless to stop him.
“I had children when I went into the hospital, and when I came out they were gone.” No other explanation was given.
She quickly shifts into reminiscence mode recalling how handsome and gentle he was – how much fun they had together – how every woman wanted to be with him. But he was hers, she said, at least for a time.
She asks if I have spoken to him and I tell her he died several years earlier in Ringling.
“I didn’t know he was so close by,” she said with a regretful look.
As the miles ticked past on my drive from Texas, I question why I am making the journey at all. I turn up the radio to drown out the nagging voice in my head, but it screams louder. I focus on the wildflowers –the flame of the Indian paintbrushes that dot the dense blue ocean of bluebonnets that hold my attention until I cross the Red River into Oklahoma. As if the flowers know they belong in Texas, not a single blue blossom ventures across the border into the neighboring state. Perhaps it is a sign that I too have crossed a boundary into a place I don’t belong.
I am greeted first with the “Welcome to Oklahoma” sign followed by the gaudy rainbow arch that advertises one of the tribal casinos. About a ¼ mile ahead I see the casino itself, where busloads of powdered hair octogenarians flock to spend the day playing the penny slots before heading back for a stop at the outlet mall in Gainesville to spend their Oklahoma winnings in Texas.
Nearing Ardmore, my apprehension grows and that screaming voice gets louder. I exit and head west on Highway 70 winding toward my destination.
Fearing I had somehow missed the town, I pulled off a couple of times to recheck the map, which looks the same each time I refer to it. Finally, Ringling. A rusted iron sign greeted me just outside of town – “Welcome to Ringling the Home of FFA Champions.” I drove down the narrow pocked road leading into downtown and parked. I was looking for a clothing or general store that I was sure would be there to serve as the setting for a fictional piece I have been working on. And there it was, just as I had imagined.
It was a festival of one-stop shopping for all apparel needs. Hanging in the front window were one-piece white cotton long johns flanked by the mannequin of a small brown-haired boy in a camouflage hunting cap and day-glow orange vest, I presumed to make him visible to other hunters so as not to be mistaken for the target. In the other window was an outdated Butterick dress pattern, packaged in brittle cracked paper and bolt of faded fabric likely designed to entice the local women. I was disappointed to find the “closed” sign on a Saturday morning, my sense of exploration piqued. Even if I accomplished nothing else on the trip, I had found the setting for my story.
The only open business was a gift shop/Christian bookstore that appeared to be the newest addition to the downtown. I ventured inside to ask the clerk for directions to the cemetery.
“Go back to the highway and after you cross the first bridge that runs over a creek just outside of town, there is a road on the left that makes a sharp turn before winding around a bit. It’s down that road on the left,” she said.
I wasn’t sure how I could possibly know what the road would do further down.
“So I just take the first left after the bridge?” I asked.
“Yes Ma’am. I sure hope you find it. I haven’t been here too long myself,” she said.
I thanked her and left the shop to stroll through the scant downtown and then drove through the town a bit before finding my way back to the highway. Just as she had instructed, after a small bridge there was a road on the left that did indeed make a bit of a jig before winding through the countryside.
As I pulled into Ringling Memorial Cemetery, I was overwhelmed – wondering how I would ever find the single grave I was looking for. There was no one to ask for help as I stood deep in population, probably more than ever resided at one time in the whole of the tiny town, yet the only breath was mine and the only sound was the rustling of the trees. I stopped at the gate and assessed the several acres deciding to make a drive through before starting out on foot to search the graves.
My car seemed to steered itself to the back of the property, creeping along the potholed gravel road. I squinted to scan the names on the graves adorned with plastic dime store Madonnas, ceramic plates inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer and rusted tin cans holding twigs of flower stems – blossoms long since crumbled into dust and carried away in the formidable never ceasing wind.
The third marker was a Burleson. It wasn’t R.P. but his brother Jerry and a few feet away another marble marker - Jerry’s twin brother Berry, my cousins. Hidden a few yards back were three small temporary markers – the ones that the funeral homes put up until the permanent stone is installed. And there, in the center was R. P. Burleson. The nondescript site was flanked by a white cross, made of spray-painted rebar. Nothing else. No words of remembrance – no recognition of existence. Despite the patience of his eternal waiting, no marker will come and in time the letters identifying his tiny plot will fade.
I drove away without glancing back and made one last stop. At the edge of town, facing the highway was a rundown roadside motel. It may have flourished in years past, but was now a haven for the downtrodden, the homeless and those trying to survive on government assistance. This was R. P.’s resting place prior to his final resting place. It was the Ringling Motel. The broken windows, exterior reminiscent of once peeling paint that had faded to bare siding and remnants of earth tone naugahyde dining room chairs that flanked the doorways that led to the imagined substandard plumbing and rat and insect infestation. I could visualize the stained feather mattress covered in cotton ticking that has haunted me in my dreams for so many years. Yet even presented with such misery and poverty, I couldn't reach into my heart for an ounce of regret for his sad circumstance. There was nothing inside me but emptiness, and as I drove away I looked back briefly with only indifference.
It is not until I have completed my exploration, with stark realities quickly dissolving my fantasies, and Ringling
becomes a shrinking snapshot in the rearview mirror, that the emotion sweeps over me. Uninvited tears blur
my vision. The circus is over and only the cluttered memories remain.
Copyright Rebecca Hertz 2014
By Rebecca Hertz
Entering Young County the landscape changes drastically. Parched prairie grass, clumps of mesquite and dry stock tanks are replaced with the lush green foliage of mature trees and ponds brimming with water. To the northwest, hazy, blue mountains rest against the summer sky. The flat endless prairie gives way to the rolling hills and the two lane blacktop highway snakes toward the city of Graham.
Oakhurst cemetery lies on the outer edge of town. It is the final place of rest for what appears to be thousands of Young County residents. The ocean of headstones seems endless. Some are elaborate and statuesque, towering above the other declaring their station and importance. Others are jagged pieces of rock or concrete with names carved by an unsteady hand. But death is a great equalizer and prominence quickly disappears at a depth of six feet.
I have come to find my biological father, a man I never met. I know him only from photographs and memories of others. He was a convicted con man and a thief who abandoned me. And still I seek him out in the safety of this cemetery – far from his reach for reasons I cannot explain.
Daunted by the enormity of the task I have undertaken, I divide the property into sections, park my car in a shady spot and venture on foot examining each marker I pass. Some are so old the carvings have weathered away. As time and nature drain the life’s blood the identity too disappears.
I am drawn to the tiny stones shaped as hearts or angels that adorn the graves of children. I pause in tribute or maybe it’s envy of the peaceful rest that came so quickly. I sense that my emotions and pace have slowed down.
The rows contain 20-25 graves. I have covered about 1/3 of the cemetery when I begin to feel unsteady and tiny white stars start closing in. The heat and scorching sun have taken their toll and I decide there must be a better way.
Weak and tired I pour myself into the car and crank up the AC to the highest setting. A sense of failure presses heavily on my chest and my arms ache. My thoughts are jumbled and panicked as I attempt to map out my next steps.
Overwhelmed by my confusion, I submit to the forces I cannot control. I give up the fight, relax against the headrest and let the cool air wash over me. Closing my eyes, I remind myself to breath and the fog begins to lift.
I make another pass, driving slowly through the cemetery hoping I will see something I missed before. Approaching the brown stone pillars that line the entrance I pause for one last glance in my rearview mirror at the landscape of white and gray stones that shout to me in their silence. I know I will miss their welcoming acceptance – the stories told by the few words left behind in this place where no one ca exert power over another. Held captive by time and space, I can only carry them with me in my heart. So I depart with tears already knowing I will never return.
Determined to arm myself with a map of the graveyard to hasten my progress, I drive into town. It is already 4:30 p.m. My first stop is the newspaper office in hopes they can direct me. A smiling blond haired woman in her 40s contemplates my dilemma and sends me to the funeral home.
The gray brick structure sits stately on the corner across from the square. The polished furniture and beige tufted sofa reside in silence, patiently awaiting the arrival of the grieving and tearful. A man in a black suit and mournful face appears to greet me speaking softly as if to avoid waking the residents.
“I’m so sorry but I can’t help you. I would suggest that you try the court house,” he said extending his pale manicured hand.
The courthouse is only a block away but I opt to drive the distance and avoid the heat passing the entrance several times before recognizing it. I walk past the prominent “no skateboarding” signs and ascend the steps. It is cool and dark with plaster walls and oak woodwork. I can’t get my bearings and wander past accounting offices and disserted courtrooms wasting too much time before I happen upon the county clerk. The secretary directs me to the city hall. This time I can see the entrance from where I stand.
I race to the building cursing the red light that stands between my destination and me. I’ve wasted my time. These people have wasted my time.
Two women and a maintenance worker have congregated at the coffee machine counting the minutes to the end of the workday. Turning to look at me as I enter, they stand for a moment sizing up this unknown dusty, disheveled woman, clothing drenched, red faced, hair dripping with sweat.
I smile and move to the counter. They hold their position.
“I’m looking for information. Is there any sort of map of the cemetery I could use to locate a grave?”
“We don’t have anything like that,” says a dark haired woman whose features are fuzzy to my sun strained eyes. “Which cemetery are you looking in?”
“There is more than one?” I say.
“Oakhurst and Pinemont. Who are you looking for?” she asks glancing at her watch.
I give her my father’s name and the year of his death. Finally stirring from her perch at the coffee machine, she retreats into a large vault with an enormous circular door. She emerges with two large green clothbound books. She searches through handwritten records and returns to the vault twice for more books.
“There haven’s been any plots sold in Oakhurst since the 50s,” she says.
“If someone were very poor, where would they more likely be buried?”
“Pinemont has a pauper’s section; you might want to try that.”
She gives me directions and explains that some graves have only temporary markers or no identification at all.
“How will I know if I am in the right place?”
“Oh, you’ll know.”
Pinemont cemetery is a more recent addition to the community. The marble headstones and monuments are polished and pristine reflecting the green grass that surrounds them. No soil is visible. Even new graves are covered with green blankets. Unlike Oakhurst, here the hierarchy has not yet broken down. The monuments to earthly glory still reach toward the sky and gleam in the sunlight.
The pauper’s graves are separated from the main cemetery by a red dirt road. There is little shade or adornment. The space appears to be an afterthought utilized only as necessity dictates. Though only a few feet lay between the prosperous and the destitute, the distance is as vast as the open range and the dry cracked earth contrasts the cool shade and lush foliage of the main cemetery.
I examine a few stones and kneel to read the faded lettering on the metal tags that mark other graves. Much of the space is unmarked. I search for seams or outlines in the brown brittle grass for a sign that a grave even exists. Having exhausted the area I sit on the exposed roots of the only tree to rest in the shade and contemplate. Here the poorest among us, invisible in life, rest in anonymity. As the seasons pass the outline of their existence is erased.
Beside me on a red brick with the name Smith carefully lettered in black paint lays a lizard sunning himself on the warm clay. Unaffected by my presence he occasionally looks up at me then drifts back to sleep.
Wasted and numb, I reach my hand to wipe the sweat from my eyes and dissolve into tears. I didn’t find my father’s grave. Perhaps we touched today, but I will never know.
Copyright (c) 2008 Rebecca Hertz
By Rebecca Hertz
Moving through this sanctuary of books – the volumes of words – intentional letters, spaces, white space encircle me. Floating around and through me like the notes dripping from the tightly held hymnal in the closing chapters of “Horseman, Pass By.”
Entering the mansion I keenly await some great epiphany to overtake me – a bolt of lightening – a miracle of inspiration and clear direction for which I search daily in my life.
Instead, I am wrapped in a blanket of calm familiarity – almost like I have been here before and yet in every corner I am drawn to a new object and my mind tries to intertwine these sights and objects that over time have created the gentle man who we approach with such awe and reverence.
I expect McMurtry to be aloof and untouchable but instead am confronted with a quiet spoken gentle man not unlike my own grandfather and uncles whose lives took them from the rural Texas farms and ranchlands to cities like Fort Worth and Dallas only to return to the land in their later years. Dignified men whose lives I experienced through their tales of hardship and adventure.
I saunter across the sanded, unvarnished hardwood floors and find myself transported to another time and place. The whirring of the ceiling fans, a saddle perched atop a thigh-high stack of books and the mustiness I taste in the air take me to the feed and hardware store beside the railroad tracks in the town where I grew up.
McMurtry thoughtfully answers questions about himself and his works, past and present. I am touched as he lingers over characters of his creation, keeping them in his heart – even mourning their passing long after the final pages are typed and his babies are relinquished into the world to be consumed and judged.
If ghosts do walk the stairs and hallways of McMurtry’s mansion, perhaps they are the remnants of these companions that have failed to fade away.
Copyright (c) 2008 Rebecca Hertz
Were they like me
By Rebecca Hertz
I wish I could remember more – but the more I write the more the memories flood back. The time when I was four and five seem to be the most vivid, probably because it was a happy time – playing with puppies, chasing horny toads, catching jelly jars full of tiny minnows along the muddy creek behind the brown frame house, the taste of the rusted and dusty screened door where I sat with my nose pressed against it on rainy days.
I took my first train trip recently. As I rode along in Texas landscape, it occurred to me that time spent on a train was limited to the present. There is no way to look ahead or behind, much like it was on those lazy days when my mind was wasn’t cluttered with planning for the future or regrets of the past. I find myself wishing that my journey through life could be filled with that view of the sun peaking randomly through the autumn leaves and dancing on the stream below, or the straight rows of the cotton fields, or the cactus filled prairie that ooches on toward the horizon and the relief of the lone mesa in the distance.
As confining as a train is, it is even more freeing. I had planned to spend my time reading, making to-do lists and squelching the feelings of fear and regret for my actions that actually led me to embark on this train trip. But my desire to read and plan dissipated as I settled into the landscape. My need to chastise myself for what may or may not have been a mistake was lost in overheard conversations.
That is what I do. I listen and observe and imagine. That’s what I have always done. As a kid I imagined what other peoples lives were like – what happened inside their homes – their thoughts and feelings. Were they frightened? What did they eat? Were they happy? Were their minds filled the words that constantly bombarded me like the shiny metallic sphere that bounced around in a pinball machine? Did they dream the stories that would become the next day’s adventure? Were they like me?
Copyright (c) 2010 Rebecca Hertz